Valen’s knuckles rapped sharply at the door of this well-to-do West Coast high rise, the one with both the best view of the sunset and the best takeoff altitude in the city, the one where she knew she would find Cupid. That is, assuming zie was home. It wasn’t a common thing for her to make “house calls” like this, at least not to anyone who wasn’t mortal, but she’d been coerced into it. A mutual friend had called in distress to recount a recent meeting with Cupid, wherein zie hadn’t been zir usual bubbly self.
“I have never seen zir with chipped nail polish before. Something’s wrong, and I didn’t know who to call but you.”
“Sure, because compassion has always been my specialty,” Valen had answered, frustrated with the interruption of her work day. Still, she recognized that if Cupid was giving any indication of suffering, it must have been something major; zie had quite a lot of practice at maintaining that sweet disposition no matter what.
“That’s not the point. You’ve literally been around zir entire life. Whatever strange relationship the two of you have, it’s enough for you to try to help.”
So, against her better judgment but out of what she viewed as professional solidarity, there she was, waiting for an answer that didn’t come. She knocked again. “Cupid?” Still nothing. But locked doors have never kept Death out for long. As she let herself inside, she could already see zir across the loft-style layout of the apartment. The far wall was comprised wholly of windows, and zie sat with one of them open, sitting on the ledge with zir feet dangling down.
“Hi, Valen,” zie said without looking back. Zie was holding a glass of dark red wine in both hands, and the half-empty bottle sat on the floor next to zir. “Do you need something?”
“I heard you weren’t at your best and figured I’d see why. What’s going on?”
“You’re Death, aren’t you?” zie asked. “You should recognize mourning when you see it.”
“Mourning what?” Valen asked. When zie didn’t answer, she quickly got impatient, tapping her heel on the marble floor and clearing her throat pointedly.
Cupid’s wings visibly tensed, and zie turned over zir shoulder to snap, “I didn’t ask you to come here and ‘solve’ my problem. It doesn’t affect your work, so if you don’t actually care, you’re welcome to leave.” Immediately when zie was done, zie shrank back a bit, guilty and uncomfortable with being so unkind. Valen stayed where she was for a moment before conceding to change her approach. She set her attaché case down and slipped off her shoes, then went to the kitchen to retrieve another wine glass.
“You gonna share that stuff or what?” she asked as she came back, taking a seat in the window beside Cupid and offering the empty glass, which zie filled without question. From this distance, she could see that zie looked paler than usual; the natural blush that perpetually warmed zir cheeks so charmingly had disappeared. Without it, zie looked almost sickly. After one sip of her wine, Valen grimaced. “Damn it! I forgot how strong that shit is.” Dionysus might have been a flake, but no mortal liquor even came close to his work. Cupid visibly cringed from her harsh language, so she tried to move on, “So?”
“…I should probably be used to it by now,” zie muttered, taking another small sip. As zie looked askance at Valen, zir eyes were tinted red. “You’re at least as dedicated to your work as I am. How do you balance that with your personal life?”
Valen snorted, reaching up to remove her shades and rest them on top of her head instead. “My what?”
“Mm-hm. That’s what I thought,” Cupid answered, running zir fingertips around the rim of zir glass. “But that’s not true anymore, and you know it. Somehow or other, you’ve made time enough to fall in love.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” she answered. Her gulps were significantly larger than Cupid’s.
“You know I don’t have to. Whether you’re willing to admit it is your business, but…you are still together. She loves you, if nothing else. Enough to be patient while you’re away. Enough to understand that you and your work aren’t separate things.”
“Yeah,” Valen answered tersely. Thinking too hard about her relationship with Savina inevitably made her uncomfortable. Considering her history with love, considering how little she had to offer, it amazed her sometimes, too.
“It just…I don’t see how this works. I try so hard. Every time. I do everything I possibly can to make it work. To somehow manage my love with the millions and millions of others in the world.” Zie took another heavy drink, pausing a moment to reestablish zir balance. “This time, I can’t even blame it on work. It’s me. It’s entirely my fault. There’s just…a lot happens in a few thousand years. Not all of it I want to admit to. Not all of it is acceptable to other people.”
“So what? Who gives a sh— Who cares about ‘other people’?”
Cupid was shaking zir head. “I do, Valen. I’m not like you; I can’t just go off on my own and forget anyone who disapproves. I’ve tried. But I’m not…I can’t live without being loved. That’s why I keep trying even when it never works. Because I can’t do my job properly if I’m alone.”
“…so what happened?”
“I made poor decisions,” zie said. “And, as always, I have no self-control. I made promises that I couldn’t—that I’ve never been able to keep.”
“Look, if you want me to understand, you’ll have to be clearer than that,” Valen said, taking another drink and enjoying the warmth at the back of her throat. Cupid took a deep breath and sighed.
“I was with someone who expected me to be exclusively faithful,” zie said. “Which I can do…for a while. I think that every time.” Zie paused and lowered zir head. “I didn’t want to lose him. I hoped…maybe this time would be different. But I can’t control who I love or when or under what circumstances. And I met someone else. I kept from acting on it, but…it was still there.” Zie was refilling zir glass as zie spoke, dispassionate, quiet. “When you love someone, you can’t just choose to stop.”
“The hell you can’t,” Valen said as her mind flashed to Lilith.
“It’s true. Maybe you change or they do, so the feelings change…but love doesn’t just disappear because you will it away. Not real love. And I can’t produce any other kind,” zie laughed ruefully. “It was just—it was too much. I couldn’t stand lying to him. But I couldn’t tell him, either. He…wouldn’t have understood. It would’ve hurt him more.”
“So you ended it. Used that old fallback of yours, hurt him to protect him?”
It was embarrassing to realize Valen knew so much about this. You’d think a god would learn. Cupid bit zir lip hard as tears slid down zir face, and zie nodded. For the sake of the conversation, Valen kept her opinion on that particular method to herself. The way she conducted herself put honesty above all else, but she supposed that couldn’t work for everyone.
“I couldn’t…just keep quiet forever. But telling him for the sake of my own conscience would’ve been selfish,” zie muttered. It was mind-boggling to Valen how zie could always, always put the feelings of others before zir own. Yet Valen was nothing but selfish and…
“That’s what you meant about trying so hard. How it doesn’t make sense that it never works.”
Cupid had stopped drinking and set zir glass aside, curling zir knees up to zir chest. Even zir wings seemed to curl around zir as zie withdrew, nodding. “I’m…jealous,” zie said quietly. “And I can only assume it’s something I’m doing wrong. Even if you won’t admit it, your relationship is going so well, and you’re…” Valen chuckled as she realized what zie was implying.
“Me?” she suggested.
“I don’t mean—”
“No, it’s okay; I get it. It’s pretty much a fact that you’re easier to get along with than I am.” She drained her glass and leaned her head back thoughtfully. “Guess karma doesn’t work quite right on gods.”
“Karma,” Cupid repeated, uncharacteristically bitter. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve done something to deserve this. It certainly would be nice to have someone tell me what, though.”
“As if that would change how you are,” Valen easily countered. “As if you’ve ever listened when anyone else told you how to be. Not your mother. Not Zeus. I won’t even get into Apollo…”
“You know I feel awful about that!” Cupid insisted. But zie was smiling guiltily nevertheless.
“The point is: even if someone tried to ‘guide’ you like that, you’d still tell them you know what’s best for you. Because you do.” Looking out at the city lights far below them, she went on, “That’s the part you should be used to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean sometimes you have to do…thing like this,” she said with a shrug. “Whatever your reasoning is, for their sake, for yours, whatever: it’s because you decided it was necessary. And literally nobody on the planet knows how to deal with love better than you do.”
Cupid listened quietly and considered her words. She was almost objectively right; there was no one else so intimately aware of love by seeing or sensing it, no one else who would so accurately predict where a relationship would lead, no one else who could so deftly mend a broken heart. Zie was able to do this for the same reason Valen could determine a fitting fate for any given mortal; even if not for the centuries of practice, it was part of zir nature.
“I guess,” zie agreed, still ruminating on the idea.
“Look, obviously you and I are in different industries. I can’t tell you whether what you’re doing is ‘right,’” Valen said. Her dark eyes were closed as if in concentration, as if she was being careful to express this thought correctly. “But decisions have to be made, so there’s no point in hating yourself every time you make one.” Zie wondered how many times she’d said this to herself over the years. Probably more than she’d care to admit. But she had come to terms with it, with the knowledge that she couldn’t possibly fulfill her purpose without hurting anyone.
“It still hurts to lose him,” Cupid pointed out.
“Sure, but it won’t end your life.” As callous as she was about matters of the heart, she was, once again, correct. And, as Cupid knew from a great deal of experience (both zir own and others’), that meant there would be other loves in the future. Even if zie couldn’t simply “get over it,” that was a comforting thought.
“…thank you for coming to check on me.”
When Valen glanced back at zir, the softest hint of a blush was starting to color zir cheeks again. Maybe that was from the wine. Maybe not. Zie wanted to hug her, to be physically affectionate as ever, but, knowing that Valen preferred not to be touched, zie held back and settled for a warm smile.
“Don’t mention it. Thanks for the drink,” she said. Without it, she wasn’t sure she would’ve been able to sit through all this mushy bullshit. And drinking made it much easier for her to dismiss it as mushy bullshit without thinking about it too much more.